Peep - The Comics Journal (2024)

Reviews

Brian Nicholson | May 29, 2024

Peep is a new anthology, edited by Sammy Harkham and Steve Weissman, printed at the same dimensions as Kramers Ergot 10 was, but at only 48 pages, and staple-bound. There is a high number of contributors - 29, if you count cover artist Alex Schubert - but everyone only has a few pages to work with. Artists make the most of the space afforded them, and while one might grow weary at how many grids there are, with some artists seemingly vying for the title of most panels per page, the short-form format ensures that no one outstays their welcome, nor is there much that can be dismissed as being slight or filler.

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Page one commences, as if in overture, with a three-pager by Vanessa Davis, offering potentially career-best work. It is of a piece with her casual and offhand autobio work, but forsakes the panel-less and free-flowing structure of her earlier work for a series of visual double entendres. In its depiction of a mind reading a book and visualizing its contents, while also commenting on what the plot points of the book make the reader think about, and depicting the way those thoughts then manifest in the body of the reader, it outshines Jordan Crane’s Keeping Two in a handful of pages. The book Vanessa is reading is the sequel to Clan Of The Cave Bear, and is about a big-dicked caveman. The combination of sophisticated cartooning and earthy subject matter immediately announcing that we’re in for the good sh*t here.

Peep - The Comics Journal (3)There is a continuity one will notice with the with the earlier issues of Kramers Ergot, both in terms of authors who return from that series and cartoonists who’ve appeared in each other’s stories. Vanessa Davis had a few one-page strips in Kramers Ergot 6, one of which featured a cameo appearance by Gabrielle Bell. Bell is here with a page of lightly-fictionalized autobio, and accompanying her in a walk-on role is the cartoonist Angela Fanche, identifiable by saying “I like red” in the first panel and subsequently drawing and printing her work primarily in that color. Bell’s interior monologue touches on the generation gap, asking what it is to be a friend to an artist twenty years younger than you. The strip ends with Angela asking for a blurb for her book, and Gabrielle in return asking Angela if she can procure molly for her. Fanche’s Me And Night does in fact carry a back-cover blurb from Bell, but whether drugs were scored remains an open question.

Following up on the appearance of Spain Rodriguez in an autobiographical strip by Kim Deitch in Kramers Ergot 10, here we get a three-page black and white Spain strip, reproduced in full color from the original art. It captures the feeling of hanging out with a certain kind of hippie, unheeding of danger due to their own belief in the durability of their work-arounds and philosophy that has them as master of the universe. In the context of a mostly younger crowd, Spain and his biker bona fides stands in for that type of hippie. At three pages, the anecdotal remains inconclusive, judgment-free, a moment of time captured in incredibly strong drawing.

Like Kramers Ergot, Peep takes an intergenerational approach to its curation, powered by archival material from the deceased and new work by those up in the years enough that many of their youthful peers have since passed on. While most of the work in Peep retains a loyalty to the principle of ending on a gag, it achieves a seriousness both in how many of its strips circle around themes of life and death and being an artist and in how it reminds the reader of the ephemerality of life via representation of works of those now deceased. Besides the Spain piece, we get a Harvey Kurtzman one-pager. Members of the underground comics generation still with us present work in dialogue with work further in the past. Holy sh*t, Art Spiegelman’s here, riffing on early 20th century newspaper strips with two guys named “Muck And ji*zz.”

Ben Katchor is here too, with work that overlaps significantly with members of the younger generations selected. Danielle Chenette, a L.A. based animator and illustrator, shares with Katchor linework so scratchy it seems carved with X-Acto knives and digital coloring that in its use of gradients looks smeared and painterly. As authors they find a correspondence, as all artists must, in demanding the impossible. Chenette’s characters, impoverished, seek deals with the devil to solve all their problems, while Katchor’s proletariat mass is in political protest against the reproductive urge outside a billionaire’s condo.

I saw that strip performed by Katchor at a reading in New York where E.A. Bethea also presented a a strip printed here. Bethea’s visual essay style connected to Katchor’s through the intentionality of its language, their cadences given additional gravitas by the inflection of the performer. Katchor has honed his approach through decades of touring, beginning when his wordiness was understood as literary by comics-curious book publishers, but Bethea’s poetry is an outlier, likely not even considered comics by many, in a world where even independent publishers are increasingly charmed by YA-market-category-oriented simplicity.

Bethea’s piece concerns the Bonnie And Clyde museum, the nostalgic romance of Depression-era working class folk heroes, and the museum’s situation in a part of Louisiana where Bethea’s identity as a queer woman is immediately clocked and distrusted. Katchor offers three strips over the course of two pages, each dated from years apart. His most recent, from 2020, is about the pandemic, but ties in well with his ongoing project of nostalgic longing for the last gasps of urban Americana, which suffered so many blows during the isolation of the COVID era. Here his narrator misses the spittle of the excited and over-salivated conversationalist. In capturing this longing for the frailty at the limits of our bodies, Katchor connects to Vanessa Davis’ strip as well.

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Ours is a changing world, and Kevin Huizenga provides a one-pager that demonstrates the way in which the conservative male mindset has changed since the Bush-era Christianity of his Kramers Ergot 5 story Jeepers Jacobs to the dick-pills new age of the neverending Trump campaign. Here he adapts a Craigslist personal ad into a cubist portrait of man and Oregon ablaze. As seen in last year’s Fielder 2, Huizenga’s thoughtful and observant approach is able to capture the increasing mania of the internet-abetted fracturing of shared reality. He is one of the best we’ve got, capturing the feeling of teetering over the edge of that which threatens to destroy our ability to capture and communicate any feeling at all. In retrospect, it is very funny that he spent the past decade-plus writing about trying to fall asleep.

Noisenik drummer Brian Chippendale hasn’t been seen in print since 2016, with the dual releases of his Puke Force collection from Drawn And Quarterly and his Atrophy Life minicomic, and it’s never been given the airy oversized presentation he gets in his three two-paneled pages here. Despite Kramers Ergot’s association with Fort Thunder, through the work of Mat Brinkman, and the fellow travelers of CF and Paper Rad, cofounder Chippendale never appeared in its pages. Bringing back the beloved (by me) If 'N’ Oof, he remains a maker of beautiful drawings, and a lover of both genre-comics conflict and wordplay that can either be called juvenile or dad jokes, depending on your outlook. Like many cartoonists here, he provides his story with a punchline as if to prove that, while there may have been digressions of indulgent fancy and bumps in the road on the way to getting where he was going, he knew what he was doing all along.

Chris Cilla turns the book on its side with a centerpiece that uses the spine of the book as its x-axis. He upends the format of the grid as well, delineating a three-dimensional labyrinth of cubicles one runs about in between the sky and the grave as a metaphor for life itself. “Start Over… Finish Under” his choice of words points towards a zen profundity fit for a gag cartoon to be printed on a poster, then hung up at the workplace to remind you daily of life’s basic situation.

Before and above the ground we’re buried in we find the floor, and what should lie on the floor but a rug? Animating the rug in a ghostly dance of life we have Molly O’Connell, with a strip cut from her 2023 publication The Shriekers. The Shriekers is a collection of short gag strips set in and around a haunted boarding house, one of the residents of which was this rug with a pair of feet coming out from it, as if a corpse were given the laziest possible attempt to hide it. Here we get, in unbordered panels, that carpet up on its feet, shuffling its shape before a mirror, like one of Jules Feiffer’s strips about a dancer extrapolated further into an exercise in pure exploratory form.

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French cartoonist David Amram supplies a two-page strip that balances its purple ink against white space in perfectly soothing proportions that can only be called cute, providing a welcome respite from busier material. Steve Weissman would be one such provider of a more involved narrative, presenting a world of animal conflict, political intrigue, and human observation in a thin open line. John Hankiewicz presents work that’s demanding in its own unique way, with precise black and white drawing and narration that recollects the past without sentiment. It’s work that’s admirable for how different it is than what other people provide, the air of austere difficulty alien and at odds with everyone else’s insistent humanity.

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I said before that the themes that recur throughout the volume are life, death, and being an artist. The longest story, at four pages, has Antoine Cossé depicting the last days of Paul Cezanne in 1906 - subject matter chronologically preceding 1907 debut of Bud Fisher’s Mutt And Jeff, which Spiegelman turned his attention to. Cosse’s black and white work is gorgeous, his depiction of the man in silhouette against the forms of the landscape making him one of the few people that can render a comic strip about a painter that doesn’t feel like it’s insulting either medium.

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And who ends up the winner of the most panels per page contest? That ends up being the man who would have had the inside scoop on how many panels everybody else was using, editor Sammy Harkham. Like Huizenga’s strip, his piece How To Be A Cartoonist appears to be an adaptation of a found text. The expected irony is that the character the story follows doesn’t heed the well-intentioned dictums that are meant to create a situation where one can get work done. We all have our perverse streaks. Some of us are walking our cat named Dog, while others are naming their dogs Garfield. How many can escape becoming undone. As if nodding to Katchor’s strip about saliva, and prefiguring the note the magazine ends on, the mask on our cartoonist’s face steadily becomes more besmirched with blood in each of the last few panels.

If it remains uncertain whether the life of an artist is a life well-lived, Sophia Foster-Dimino provides a strip about what it is to be a mother, a type of artist who, in Foster-Dimino’s telling, ends up satisfied with the work she’s wrought. It is a gentle, sentimental story, that introduces a small handful of clearly-designed characters and presents them with dignity and depth, in layouts that flow intuitively to give space for small moments that don’t derail the overall narrative. For the sort of post-Chris-Ware, literary comic that would feel at home in The New Yorker, nothing else in Peep comes close to her story Happy Birthday Henry.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Roman Muradov wins the “seeming not to give a sh*t” contest with a page of work that feels tossed-off and improvised. I mean this as a compliment: if other work feels deliberate and worked out in advance, Muradov’s procession of gags feels like a mind responding in real time to itself, a one-man jam comic spurred on by the radio waves of the culture at large. While Foster-Dimino presents a birthday party filled with abundant love and shared history, Muradov captures a dinner party of strangers struggling to say anything to each other that’s not about some dumb sh*t from television or the internet. The anger and humor of one and the cultivated beauty of the other are the book’s twin poles, the animating spirit and the form it takes.

Disa Wallander offers competition in the “keeping it casual” competition with four unbordered panels printed in blue on the book’s inside front cover, a nice little joke to introduce the reader to the table of contents, only to end up rhyming in form with Katie Skelly’s five panels in red on the last proper page of the book, with which it even shares a slight diagonal tilt dividing its tiers. Skelly’s strip has more heft than most of her work, denser in both page and panel composition, and depicting characters in the act of consuming the tragedies of life, rather than preening to be consumed themselves. The slant to the paneling is owed to the page design being built around a guillotine, on which the story’s title “Les Tricoteuses” is written. The story concerns the knitting women that bore witness to the beheadings of the French revolution from the gallery. Perhaps they stand in for all of us in the audience who profess left-wing beliefs, maybe even calling for public figures to be guillotined on social media, but don’t actually do anything beyond squabbling amongst ourselves. We might be they, and the red ink may be blood.

On the back cover we get another smiling face wrought with blood - “Menstruation,” courtesy of Chile’s Maria Paz Gazale, credited in the table of contents as Artichokat, her website. Hers is the most Silver-Sprocket looking stuff here, the person who, looking her up online, seems to sell a lot of stickers and merch, putting large cartoon eyes on a devil that’s a zoomer cousin of Harvey Comics’ Hot Stuff. The comic is glib and silly but to be about the body is neither of these things, it’s a condition of life itself, and so provides yet another piece of cohesion within the book, gluing together works of all manner of depth. The signoff of the smiling face of period blood is “See U Next Month!” and being on the back cover the book ends on this note as well. The last bit of text echos an old letter’s column next-issue box, but that we should get another issue of Peep so soon seems, as the Brits say, Not Bloody Likely. An anthology with this strong a lineup is less than a once in a blue moon occurrence.

We keep track of time by its recurrences, but the cast around us slowly changes, and it is not guaranteed that everyone of significance in the pages of Peep will be here when we meet again. The body with its weaknesses and fluids is something we will miss after whatever disruptions come next. Slapstick is serious because it reminds us we’re alive. The comics in Peep are rooted in the muck and ji*zz of existence, because that’s the material we all are working with. It does not distinguish between the crass and the profound, or allot additional respect to the elderly or the young. All are given the same objectively short amount of time to make their mark. Everyone’s contribution coalesces into a tapestry worth clutching to your chest.

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Peep - The Comics Journal (2024)

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